The photo of a Naga Sanyasi is the most stereotypical image you will come across in any story, essay or documentary on the famed Kumbh Mela.
But while these sansyasis make a spectacular visual statement, few realise how old and widespread this tradition is, or even how economically and militarily powerful these monks were . There was a time when kings turned to them for help and over time these sanyasis adopted different roles as monks, warriors and finally as bankers! You’d be amazed to learn about people who trace their origins to the Naga Sanyasis. They include a top business leader, fashion models and an ex-Miss India!
There was a time when kings turned to them for help
The most comprehensive work on the subject of these Naga Sanyasis was done by noted historian Sir Jadunath Sarkar in his work ‘A History Of Dasnami Naga Sanyasis’ . Sarkar, in his book, traces their lineage to the tradition established by Adi Shakaracharya around 8th century CE, for the revival of Hinduism. Just as Buddhism was experiencing a decline, a number of monastic orders of monks was set up. One of these was the Dasnami Naga Sampradaya. They were known as the Dasnami (or 10 named) as they were divided into ten orders, which are Giri (peak or top of a hill), Puri (a holy city), Parbat (mountain), Sagar (ocean), Ban or van (forest), Tirth (pilgrimage), Bharati (goddess of speech), Saraswati (goddess of learning), Aranya (forest) and Ashrama (retreat); Each of these names was corresponding to a path to salvation.
Even today a number of people with surnames like ‘Puri’ ‘Sagar’ ‘Giri’ ‘Bharati’ trace their lineage to these monks. The monks were also known as Goswamis or Gosains, to allude to their status as ‘Protectors of Cows’. Over time their monastic orders became big and were called Muths. The head of the order was called a Mahant.
The monks were known as Goswamis or Gosains, alluding to their status as ‘Protectors of Cows’
During the medieval times, these Goswami Muths became extremely powerful enjoying large patronage. Their power was at the greatest height during the declining years of Mughal empire in the 18th century, when these monk-warriors served as fierce fighting mercenaries to different kingdoms. For example, noted Goswami Mahant Anupgir held great power in the Indo-Gangetic plains and Bundelkhand and offered his help to many rulers of the time including the Mughal Emperor, the Nawab of Awadh and others.
In fact, by this time almost every kingdom in the North and western India had Goswami monk-warriors fighting for them. This included Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Baroda, Kutch and even the Nawab of Bengal Mir Qasim, who used their services in the Battle of Buxar against the British.
Incredibly, when Warren Hastings sent a missions to Tibet in 1775 and 1784, even he employed a Goswami monk-warrior named Puran Giri as his agent. This is because Puran Giri had extensive networks in Bhutan and Tibet.
Apart from offering mercenaries, the Goswami muths also played a very important role in banking and financing. In those days, when a formal banking sector was non-existent, these monastic establishments would loan huge sums of money to different powers at huge interest rates. When Peshwa Bajirao I died in 1740, it was found that he had borrowed huge sum of money from the Goswamis!
Their power was at the greatest height during the declining years of Mughal empire in the 18th century
Most prominent among the Goswami bankers were the Goswami Rajas of Hyderabad, who moved from North India to the Deccan with the entourage of the first Nizam, Asaf Jah I. They settled down in Begum Bazaar area of Hyderabad in large monastic establishments with fortified walls. The most exhaustive research on these monks turned warriors turned bankers has been carried out by Karen Leonard, a historian and anthropologist from the University of California, in her paper ‘From Goswami Rajas to Goswami caste in Hyderabad’, Karen writes about how the Goswami Mahants ran large banking establishments giving huge sums of money to the Nizam and his nobles and even maintained private armies of Arab guards!
Due to their great financial influence in Hyderabad, they were granted the title of Raja. There was a time when almost the entire Berar (parts of today’s Vidarbha in Maharashtra) region of Hyderabad was mortgaged to these Goswami Rajas.
Due to their great financial influence in Hyderabad, they were granted the title of Raja
These Goswami muths in Hyderabad were like fortresses with thick fortified walls and underground vaults where gold and jewellery was deposited by creditors. They also had large armouries and places where the disciples of the muth trained in martial arts. Each Muth was headed by a Mahant or the chief. In the 19th century, the most prominent muth was that of Raja Narsinggir and his successor Raja Dhanrajgir, who were so moneyed and hence so powerful that they were known as the ‘Rothschilds of the South’, after the famous Rothschild banking dynasty which controlled European banking . The Dhanrajgir’s came into prominence when they loaned a huge amount of money to the Nizam for establishing railways across Hyderabad.
Like the Goswami monk-warriors of the past, the Dhanrajgirs also changed with the times and made a transition from being bankers to industrialists. They established textile mills in Mumbai and Solapur and also the first private broadcasting company in India. In 1930s, Raja Dhanrajgir built the magnificent Dhanraj Mahal at Colaba, next to Gateway of India in Mumbai. At that time , it was the most expensive residential building complex to be built in the city. The family also owned the ‘Gyan Bagh Palace’ in Pan Mandi area of Hyderabad
The tradition of Goswami Rajas of Hyderabad controlling large muths, continued right upto 1947. With the establishment of Hindu Succession act and numerous other laws, many of these Hyderabad muths were dissolved and vast properties divided among followers. Today, while many muths thrive in North India but they have no financial or military power what they held in the past.
Descendants of Raja Dhanrajgir are prominent members of India’s business and cultural elite. Famous descendants of the Dhanrajgir family include former Miss India (1978) and fashion designer, Sabita Dhanrajgir-Umrigar; actor and producer Tarun Dhanrajgir as well as model Rhea Pillai.
Who would imagine fortunes would change so much over the centuries! From monks, to king makers, bankers and industry heads!
Did You Know
Unlike traditional Hindu practice, Dasnami Goswami Mahants were buried in seated position when they passed away. The tony Malabar Hill area of Mumbai has a large number of samadhis of Dasnami Goswami Mahants. Infact, many of these are ‘Jeevant Samadhis‘ where they were still alive when they took a samadhi. Sadly, the builder lobby is trying to encroach on these.
Get access to weekly Live events, experiences and an exclusive repository of films, articles and books